When I raved about Roberto Alagna's 'French Arias' two years ago, I commented that a disc from him dedicated to Berlioz was essential, especially since Berlioz is his favorite composer. This disc has now arrived, and is not only a tremendous artistic achievement for Alagna, it may very well be the most important classical CD released in this Berlioz centennial year.
What makes this disc so remarkable is that it shows just how devoted Alagna is to this composer - no other tenor has committed this much Berlioz to a solo recording, not even Nicolai Gedda or Alagna's great French predecessor Georges Thill. This isn't too much of a surprise because the music is often extremely difficult, and requires a great vocal, stylistic and dramatic range. Alagna is up to every challenge and sings even the heaviest music here with remarkable ease - considerably more so than he has been showing lately in dramatic Italian repertory - but still has enough sweetness and elegance for most of the lighter music. Not even Alagna's closest competitors in this music today, the splendid Ben Heppner and Marcello Giordani, can match him for sheer artistic imagination, character identification, and, for lack of a better word, Frenchness. Alagna's French diction dwarfs even many other native singers. And did I mention the gorgeous voice? To put the icing on the cake, EMI provides Alagna with the finest supporting forces. These include not only Alagna's wife, the magnificent soprano Angela Gheorghiu, and several superb choruses including the French Army Chorus, but in the most luxurious casting imaginable, the spoken lines are delivered by no less than Gerard Depardieu!
The album begins with Enee in 'Les Troyens', one of Alagna's dream roles. He ably handles the fiendish tessitura of Enee's entrance 'Du peuple et des soldats' - a passage reputably even more difficult than Otello's entrance. In 'Inutiles regrets' he experiences the full measure of Enee's heroism, frustration, and love for Didon. Turning to Iopas, in 'O blonde Ceres' , Alagna perfectly captures the innocent joy of being in nature and the sense of worship, even if he could have provided a bit less volume and a bit more gentleness. I regret that Alagna does not include Hylas' gorgeous serenade 'Vallon sonore' and hope he records it on a future CD. Another role in Alagna's future is Benvenuto Cellini, and on the basis of the two arias here (particularly a 'Seul pour lutter' superior even to Gedda's) it is definitely something to look forward to.
The finest selection here is from `L'Enfance du Christ' - clear, simple, dignified, full of tenderness and reverence. Also splendid are the selections from `La Damnation de Faust'. After a gentle, sensuous and awestruck rendition of 'Merci, doux crepuscule', Alagna is joined by Gheorghiu for a magnificent account of 'Ange adore', notable not only for Gheorghiu's usual radiance and passion but also for Alagna's glorious ascensions to sweet, high C#s. Thanks to the perfect blending of their voices, it nearly equals their finest duet recording - again Berlioz - the 'Nuit d'ivresse' on their first duet album. This is followed by Alagna's second recording of 'Nature immense', which may have just a bit more intensity and edge than the one on `French Arias'. On a lighter note, this tenor most famous for his astonishing Romeo now gives us his fleet, elegant Mercutio. He is also an eager, charming, and appropriately love-struck Benedict.
As in all his solo and duet recordings, Alagna unearths and performs rarities that may be unknown to all but the most fanatic historical collectors. The most notable of these is 'Lelio', the symphonic poem Berlioz wrote in order to recover from the hellish experience of writing the 'Symphonie Fantastique'. In the Song of the Fisherman. Alagna not only has an excellent rapport with pianist Jeff Cohen, but once again makes ascensions to miraculous high notes look easy, and truly brings out the poetry of the words. Based on this, I am eager for Alagna to perform more song repertory with piano both on recordings and in live recitals. How about 'Les Nuit D'Ete', almost never recorded in its entirety by a tenor? As Lelio, Depardieu provides a perfect portrait of despair and longing - and I had never realized just how beautiful HIS voice is! And in 'O mon bonheur', the heavens really do open on Alagna's gorgeous high A (?). However, while I again applaud Alagna's questing spirit for bringing out the earlier tenor version of Mephistopheles' Serenade (not from 'La Damnation de Faust' but from it's precursor 'Huit Scenes du Faust'), he sings it a bit too heavily. Nor does he really sound like the 'singing voice' of the baritonal Depardieu.
The disc ends with a thrilling rendition of the Marseillaise, where Alagna and the massed choral forces do a splendid job. I have always wanted to hear him sing this, and am delighted to report that he also did so at a Parisian rally last May to counter French fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Bertrand de Billy is one of the finest conductors of French opera of our day, providing excellent support for Alagna and evoking luminous and sensitive playing from the Covent Garden Orchestra. Although I regret that, unlike 'Bel Canto', the documentation does not include a note from Alagna, the thick booklet contains full texts and translations, as well as an essay about Berlioz and his tenors and notes on each track by British Berlioz scholar Hugh McDonald.
Alagna recently turned 40 and seems to be in his prime - at least in French music. I would be overjoyed to hear more complete Berlioz from this team, but if that is impossible, let's just have another five or six French solo albums from Alagna, and a French duet disc with Gheorghiu. In the meantime, Alagna's work here will give any lover of Berlioz - or someone who wishes to become one - much to savor and discover.